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Filipino Sense of Humor and Understanding

A while ago, I wrote an article about the differences in humor. Americans and most Western countries like the use of humor in day-to-day conversations. In addition, sarcasm is used very often.  One of the readers commented lately and asked if I could write about it. He explained part of his situation.
Here is what he wrote:

BTW, Bruce, I wonder if you would not mind to write about your experiences from earlier in your marriage with you Pinay wife…
It would be nice to compare the notes.
Myself, I have been married to my wife for just 2 years now, thereof, we are still considered newlyweds.
There are so many, by themselves very insignificant things we are going trough day by day in our life together that have to do with our cultural differences, which is totally different from what I have experienced with white ladies before…
For example, sometimes I joke with my wife that she has no sense of humor, does not understand sarcasm. Also from time to time, when I comment on something and forget about it next second she remains upset about it for 2 days because she takes everything personally.

With humor, we make jokes or joke about things with words that sound the same or with different words with the same meanings.  For instance, a child’s joke: What is black and white and read (red) all over?” There are two answers, “A newspaper” which is black (print), White (paper) and read all over (by many people). The second answer is “an Embarrassed Zebra” Since a zebra is black and white and red all over from embarrassment (blushing).

The problem is many Filipinos, even if they speak English well, in many cases translate the English to their language and the try to understand the meaning. Unfortunately, most of the humor gets lost in translation. Even when you explain the reason for the humor, it is still lost on them.

From what I have learned, many Filipino jokes are based on someone’s mistake in language. There was a lot of laughing and repeating when a politician won his election and was quoted saying “I told you I would win by a mudslide” where he meant landslide.

Another problem here with language and understanding is many Filipinos are insecure with their use of English. Because of this, they feel insulted easily if they hear an American expression, where it is just an expression in American English. Sarcasm is taken as an insult and like most women; they let being upset to fester for days. Their feelings are hurt and they will make you suffer for hurting them.

Once day I was upset with my wife and commented to her “you are a pain in the ass.” Well she was so upset; she would not talk to me. During this point, we were driving to an English friend’s restaurant for lunch.  While there, our friends asked what the problem was since he saw the tension between us.  One of mentioned my use of the expression.  He calmly explained to Elena what the expression meant and that it is just an expression to let off steam. Good thing he explained and Elena understood. Now we joke with it. I now say, “You are a pain in the ass, but you’re my pain in the ass” showing I love her and she is mine.

Something else we do not realize, with all the poverty and difficult life in the Philippines, Filipinos are a proud people and do not like outsiders to be insulting to their country and way of life. They know the problems, but they have resigned to the fact that these problems will not change and this is how life is here.

Another problem is as a foreigner in their country and at times, we generalize about the country or the people. This is insulting to most Filipinos, even if they agree with you. In anger or when upset many foreigners will say, “You Filipinos are this, or that.” In addition, they will be upset because you are saying all, not some or most.  It is the same when we are overcharged and they tell you, “Well Sir, you’re a Rich American.” Many Filipinos think all Americans or Foreigners are wealthy and can afford the higher price.

Now, this reader mentioned how he will make a comment, he will forget it in a few seconds, and his wife would stay mad for days. I am curious, if he was ever married to an American woman. Is this attitude ever different? Men typically let off steam and then forget it, women will remember and remind you of things you have done wrong for years. Another old joke is “What does an elephant and a wife have in common? They both never forget.”

Unfortunately, for this reader and many others who have a Filipina wife in their home country, the wife will find and associate with other Filipinos. With this, they never fully immerse themselves in the English language. Many times, they will purchase an extended cable package so their wife can watch TV from the Philippines.

When I was originally planning to bring Elena to America, I mentioned to her, once she arrived and were settled, I was going to have her attend an advanced ESL (English as a Second Language) course and also have her read English newspapers and read books to better immerse her in the language.

32 Responses to “Filipino Sense of Humor and Understanding”

  1. Marcel says:

    Yes Bruce, I have been married to a white woman before marrying my Filipina wife. I think you are on right track with that Filipino understanding of English.
    As we learn more and more about each other I have discovered that my wife often does not understand the meaning of my comments. This used to create lot of misunderstandings between us and it was extra confusing because my wife’s English is very good (she used to work in call center) which led me to mistakenly believe that everything I’ve said was perfectly understood, however, it was quite an opposite, unfortunately.
    Even most innocent comments had a totally different meaning for her and caused some stress between us initially.
    Now, knowing the cause of these problems, I sometimes carefully watch for body language and if I get a feeling that I was misunderstood I ask her directly to tell me what is her understanding of what I’ve just said…
    You have also mentioned Filipino TV and socializing with other Filipinos…
    I am extremely proactive, there is no Filipino TV in our house and when meeting with other Filipinos my wife uses English only in my presence now. As a former immigrant, I am very strict about it and go for total immersion into Canadian society. I, myself have cut all my ties to old countrymen, I don’t even remember the last time I’ve used my mother tongue. English in my case has a lot to desire as well and will never be as good compared if I had a chance to grow up here. In a case of my wife, the soonest she has arrived to Canada, she’d attended English courses which was prerequisite for her attending college here anyway. Her English has improved tremendously since then, however, she still finds it difficult to comprehend north American specific expressions.
    Nevertheless, constant improvement of English is an ultimate goal in our household, which helps later in finding better jobs and opportunities as I can see daily huge communities of Indians and Chinese locked in their communities and never learning to speak English.

    • Bruce says:

      Thank you for telling your experiences, I hope over time Elena will learn more and relax about my sense of humor. I love to joke, tell jokes. I cannot change that part of my personality, so she better learn.

  2. Kenneth Crawley says:

    I have been married to my pinay wife for fourteen years. In my family and community, most jokes were puns (play on words). It was natural and almost daily.
    When I got married, I would make a joke without thinking about it, and my wife would start analyzing and try to figure out what I said. After many of her questions, the joke seemed to become meaningless.
    I learned quickly in my first few months of marriage to not joke. I’d see her around groups of Filipinos and laughing at comments. I know they make jokes, but I don’t know what kind they are.

  3. Virgie Fergusson says:

    Hi I can relate to all your experiences, as I am a filipina married to a New Zealander. We had the same problems as all of you, I used to get upset whenever my husband said something that I thought was deregatory or said something as joke but didn’t go down well with me because I didn’t really understand. As years passed by I have come to understand and learned all the lingos so I don’t get upset anymore. In fact I the one making the jokes and comments now. So my advice to all the readers who are in the same predicament, it takes time but we (your filipina wives) will learn how to adapt and understand your way of thinking. So please be patient 😀

  4. roy says:

    Oh yes, it is the job of the Filipinas to adjust, learn all the lingos, increase their english and sense of humor.

    • queeniebee says:

      Seriously guys, with all due respect, you want your wives to advance in your language, make sense of your humor, and have a more up-beat attitude. But some of you, especially ones living with your wives in the Philippines, haven’t made even a marginal attempt to learn the local language and therefore that keeps you from understanding what’s going on around you, or learning even a little about what Filipinos find interesting or amusing. Insisting on going around with what you call a sarcastic sense of humor, when it’s not really pleasant or necessary can’t be much help or fun either.
      You seem to know that you have to adapt somehow, but what is your responsibility as a husband of a Filipina? You kind of give the impression that a parrot or trained seal would make a more understanding companion.
      If it’s a given that you want to adapt, it will require work and attitude changes on your part also, to make it easier for both of you. Otherwise you’ll always be frustrated, and have the feeling that you’re always on the outside looking in.

      • roy says:

        My office mate once told me I was a pain in her ass. I was just asking her if I was doing the right thing. I thought it was offensive but since she was not a native speaker either, I did not know what to make out of it. Was she just immersing herself w/ American expressions and showing off to me–maybe.
        The expression “a pain in the ass” is an expression I do not use lightly. I would certainly not want to be told that I am a pain in someone else’s ass. Is there any exact equivalent expression in Filipino? None that I can think of. We may say “peste ka” (you are a pest!) or “parusa ka sa buhay ko” or “kalbaryo ka sa buhay ko” (you’re a punishment to me). But we use that jokingly w/ friends or to traffic cops. That said, I think Filipinos are not very fond of using “you are a pain in the ass” and its derivatives, that’s why it does not translate and relate very well to us. Even if you tell us that it’s just an expression and it basically means nothing (really!), Filipinos would just grumbly accept that yes, there’s nothing to it (really!)

        • Bruce says:

          I was told the second expression is much more worse but it is your language. Pain in the Ass is an expression and not used light in America but not a major insult. If someone is bothering you often and really becoming a problem some will use that expression. A lighter one is pain in the neck.

          • roy says:

            Hello Bruce, w/c second expression? “Peste ka” ( you’re a pest) is really a bad thing to say. I have never used that. “Parusa ka sa buhay ko” is an expression I have never used to a person either; maybe I used this to a recurring poor situation (brown out) ‘kalbaryo ka sa buhay ko” is for drmatic effect. There, “pain in the ass” has really no equivalent. Bed bugs are pain in the ass or peste! People we care about do not deserved to be called pain in the ass. We can call them “kunsumisyon sa buhay” if they keep on drinking, gambling, getting into fights bec of gossipping etc.

            If someone is bothering us, the profanity we use is “leche ka!) It literally means “you are a milk”. Somehow it’s understood as a profanity; a very mild form of the F word.

          • Bruce says:

            As in what we each discussed in last comment. With our different cultures our insults are different too. What is ok for an American to say to another American, the meaning is not understood to a Filipino.
            I am glad you keep up with my site and comment so we all can get to understand each other better.

      • Bruce says:

        You are correct. And I agree. But it is a difficult language to learn and hard for some to do. What is my problem and for many others, there are family members who know and speak English well, but like to keep the Expat in their home separate from them. With all the Face and respect drivine in the culture, the obvious disrespect to someone who helps support them to give them a better life is as disrespectful as us who try to live with them and assist them in their needs.

        • queeniebee says:

          I understand that Bruce, I’m sure that they are thankful and care for you, but maybe there’s some resentment that has been buiiding about you not trying to communicate better with them in their native toungue that has built up a wall between you.
          I’m not saying become fluent, but the expectations that you had for your wife if she were to live in America with you were pretty high, and maybe seeing as you’ve made this commitment to live in Davao with her and family members, maybe you could meet them halfway, or even partway. Even small steps will seem important to them I think make it easier for you. Just food for thought…

          • Bruce says:

            One of the Filipinos who comments has offered and started teaching a few of us expats Bisaya. He is so kind and feels for us not being able to communicate in our homes, he will not accept any payment for his time. He is building lesson plans, emailing us his vocabulary prior to class.

            About resentment, YES I have much. It is not that my nieces cannot speak english, she know it well. It is just they do not want to talk or associate with me unless they have to.

          • queeniebee says:

            Good for you Bruce! I don’t think that you and others give themselves enough credit about what they can learn. I beleive that if your resolve and desire is high enough, and you’re willing to put in the time and effort, anyone can learn enough to get along and maybe more.
            Try not to beat yourself up about your neices, maybe you can chalk it up to their age. Do it for yourself and the chance to be closer to your wife and enjoy others around you.
            Good Luck to you and others, and thank that Filipino man who’s going to help you!

          • Bruce says:

            Thank you for the support. About my nieces, lately I chalk it up to their laziness and being spoiled all their life by their hard working brothers.

    • Bruce says:

      I would not say it is the job of the Filipina only to adjust, it is for both sides and find a compromise. Just as in the language problem, foreigners should try to learn some words even if they have trouble learning the full language. With jokes, it would be better if a Filipino, before feeling insulted, to ask what the foreigner meant, was it a joke? Instead of both sides being thin skinned and getting upset with misunderstanding is to try to learn each others meanings.

      • roy says:

        Hello Bruce, most of the time if I do not understand a joke, I just pretend that it is a joke. I just laugh with it or laugh at myself. Most of the time, an insult is an insult. It is what it is. If I am not ready to parry it off, I just pretend that I missed its full meaning. We Filipinos also use sarcasm. We also have sense of humor. Haha. I can’t believe I am trying to convince you on this!

        But let me say something about what’s going on w/ ur nieces. I totally agree that you have every reason to feel isolated. Aside from everything discussed here, let me just point out the possibility that teenagers are just something else. I have nieces that grew up w/ me in the Phil. Now they are teen agers here in the US. Most of the time, they are in the computer. & all I get from them are grunts. No, “Hi Tto Roy! How are you”. Or “kumain ka na ba ( have you had anything?) What I’m saying is aside from the thoughtlessness of refusing to make an effort to engage you in small talks, the language barrier is compounded by the age difference. They do not realize at all that they are missing a great opportunity in talking to you.

        • Bruce says:


          They are also missing something else. We had thought of helping them migrate to the U.S. as nurses. The oldest who is the worse, I would never assist. My feelings is, if you never did anything nice for me, why should I be nice to you. It is a tough stand, but something she needs to learn.

  5. Marcel says:

    I would not put all burden on our ladies… Man have to adjust as well. In my case I had to change the way I think as well, multicultural marriage requires adaptability on both sides.

    • Virgie Fergusson says:

      I forgot to say, of course my husband have learned to adapt to the kind of sense of humor filipinos have. I agree with Marcel both sides should adapt. Thanks, Bruce. Great website!

      • Bruce says:

        I would try to adapt if I understood the language. Whenever I asked to hear Filipino jokes, nobody will tell me any.

        • roy says:

          Bec they think you wouldn’t find it funny. Like you pointed out, American humor is different from Filipino humor. Wait, the Filipino has no humor. Was that it? Ah ok, they don’t use sarcasm? Therefor, they are incapable of being sarcastic?

          The best medium to learn the Fil jokes is to watch those inane TV gag shows or even the tagalog movies. Yes, they are crude, uncouth, beyond over the top, totally low brow or too trashy for the American taste but hey that’s what the Filipinos find funny.

          • Bruce says:

            I joke with my wife that she has no sense of humor. But as you. very good too, point out we have different sense of humors. Being an American, and someone that like to joke, it gets frustrating when something i do naturally is not understood. Not to be insulting, which I have no intention to do is to describe Filipino sense of humor as “slapstick” or obvious humor. That was popular in the 1930’s to 50’s in America. If you have ever seen “The 3 stooges” “Laural and Hardy” “Abbott and Costello” or even “the Marx Brothers.” Again not to be insulting but much of American humor has become more sophisticated such as Seinfeld. Humor in America is like that, something you think about to realize the humor or it is what here would be insulting to a person, place or group.
            Are either of us wrong? No, we are different just as in many parts of our cultures. This is why I write about here, not to insult or say either is wrong, but for each to better understand each other and our cultures.

  6. Seth says:

    Sometimes it is not the husbands fault. My wife speaks many different languages and dialects but she is very hesitant to help me learn Tagalog. I know that Bisaya is spoken in Davao but from what I have read, Tagalog is supposed to be the MAIN language in the Philippines. I figured that I would start with that and go from there. I have thought about getting a training program to help me learn more.

    • Bruce says:

      That was a discussion with the Expat group I belong to, Friends of Mindanao. That is why we are having Bisaya lessons. TV is in Tagalog, but our main concern was the language spoken in our house and around town. Most here speak Bisaya and if you know Tagalog, sure they can talk to you if you speak first, but to listen into conversations to know what is going on, we feel Bisaya is best here.

  7. Tom Martin says:

    The thing that I found sad about one of your comments and know it to be true is the people in the Philippines have accepted that things are bad and have given up on change ever taking place. That is sad and that is the reason change does not take place.

    • Bruce says:

      I guess being put down by their employers, the government and life in general has given many a self defeatist mentality. It is tough to break the trend but needs to be done.

  8. Richie says:

    I’m a Filipino-American, I grew up here since I was 5, and I find that Philippine humor tends to be very different from my (more American) humor. First of all, Filipinos (not Fil-Ams) don’t take well to American sex jokes, which is humbug for me, since a lot of the jokes I tend to make tend to double entendres about sex. Also, they take things very literally, and it depends on the education of the person, but sarcasm doesn’t exist in the Philippine culture, or if it does, it’s very mild. For example, I’ll make a lot of “I’m conceited and I love myself” jokes which kill with American audiences, but are taken quite literally by Filipinos as “Look at him, he’s so arrogant” they can’t even tell it’s a joke. It’s hard. That’s why I never get along with other Filipinos, and if I do make Filipino friends that are how do I say this, fresh from the Philippines, I try to be friendly with them but they always reject me because my humor doesn’t translate to theirs. Also a lot of them have this stereotype in their mind that all Filipino-Americans who grow up in the US are arrogant, conceited, and think they’re better than Filipinos from the Philippines, it’s an insecurity complex a lot of Filipinos carry which is why I can’t make friends with Filipinos usually unless they’re like me and they grew up here in the US since they were babies. It makes me sad actually.

    • Bruce says:


      Being born here gives you a view of both worlds. You need to be patient and not sad. You like others need to realize the Philippines is not America and Filipinos grew up in their culture, not ours.

  9. Bruce says:


    Thank you for visiting my site and commenting. I hope you eill continue to visit.

  10. Liezel says:

    I just dont know, I actually laugh on american jokes. I am visiting the american jokes websites and also those english ones. i like sarcasm, i do sarcasm jokes myself and I am a filipino.

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